Passengers on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner could be left without oxygen if the aircraft cabin suffers sudden decompression, according to a whistleblower’s claims.
John Barnett, a former quality control engineer at the company’s North Charleston factory, told the BBC that tests show up to a quarter of oxygen systems installed on Dreamliners could be faulty and might not work when needed.
He also claimed faulty parts were deliberately used on aircraft in the production line at one factory.
The 787 Dreamliner was temporarily pulled from service in 2013 over concerns the aircraft’s lithium ion batteries could leak and cause corrosion on other equipment or fires.
Barnett reportedly worked for Boeing for 32 years until his retirement in 2017. He said the safety of the Dreamliner was compromised by a rush to fill aircraft orders – something the company denies.
Barnett told the BBC he noticed problems with emergency systems in 2016 in which oxygen bottles were not discharging when they were meant to. He arranged for controlled tests to be carried out by Boeing’s research and development unit, which returned a failure rate of 25 per cent out of 300 systems.
However, he claimed his attempts to have the matter investigated further were thwarted and he filed a complaint with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2017. He was reportedly told his claim could not be substantiated because Boeing said it was working to fix the issue.
Boeing has denied Barnett’s claims, saying it did identify faulty oxygen bottles received from its supplier but removed the defective equipment from production. It said every oxygen system installed on its aircraft is tested “multiple times” prior to delivery and at “regular intervals” after the plane goes into service.
But Barnett also accused the company of ‘losing’ components it deemed defective because it failed to follow its own procedures for tracking parts through the assembly process. He said he witnessed staff working under pressure use sub-standard parts from scrap bins on the production line.
The FAA investigated claims of lost parts at Boeing in 2017 and found there were, in fact, 53 such ‘defective’ components that could not be located. It ordered the company to take action and Boeing said the issue has been “fully resolved”.
Barnett is now taking legal action against Boeing, saying it hindered his career because of the problems he pointed out.
Barnett’s Dreamliner claims follow a difficult year for Boeing, which is still waiting for its 737 Max planes to be re-certified after it issued software updates to fix a problem with the aircraft’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
The 737 Max was involved in two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 people and has been grounded since March. Investigations have found the MCAS was a factor in the first accident.
Another former Boeing staff member, Adam Dickson, told the BBC’s Panorama programme in July that engineers on the 737 Max’s production line were under pressure to keep costs down and to downplay the introduction of the MCAS as a minor change in an effort to avoid increased scrutiny from regulators.
In October, US lawmakers questioned Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg about the 737 Max situation, with senator Roger Wicker accusing the company of putting profits ahead of safety.
Congressman Albio Sires later referenced a leaked email sent to the general manager of the 737 Max programme in June 2018 – four months prior to the first crash – in which a senior manager said his assembly team were fatigued from having to speed up production, which could have compromised safety processes.
The manager continued: “Frankly, right now, all my internal warning bells are going off and for the first time in my life I am sorry to say that I am hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane.”
Boeing launched an independent review of its safety processes and as a result will create a new “products and services safety organisation” that will investigate concerns raised by employees.